Syrian forces kill 20 protesters


Syrian forces killed 20 protesters today despite President Bashar al-Assad's pledge that his crackdown on dissent was over, as thousands marched across Syria spurred on by US and European calls for Dr Assad to step down.

Most of the violence broke out in the southern province of Deraa where the five-month-old uprising against Dr Assad erupted in March, triggering a harsh response in which UN investigators say Syrian forces may have committed crimes against humanity.

"Bye-bye Bashar; See you in The Hague," chanted protesters in the central city of Homs. "The people want the execution of the president," shouted a crowd in northern Idlib province, reflecting deepening antipathy to the 45-year-old Dr Assad.

Local activist Abdallah Aba Zaid said 18 people were killed in Deraa province, including eight in the town of Ghabaghab, five in Hirak, four in Inkhil and one in Nawa. Dozens of people were wounded, he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two people were also killed in the Bab Amro district of Homs.

The main midday Muslim prayers held on Friday have been a launchpad for huge rallies across Syria and have seen some of the heaviest bloodshed, with 20 people killed last week in defiant protests where people chanted: "We kneel only to God."

Dr Assad, from the minority Alawite sect in the majority Sunni Muslim nation, told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week that military and police operations had stopped, but activists say his forces are still shooting at protesters.

Syrian state television said the deaths in Ghabaghab were caused by gunmen who attacked a police post, killing a policeman and a civilian and wounding two others. It said gunmen also killed one person in Harasta, near Damascus.

Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports of violence in which the United Nations says 2,000 civilians have been killed. Authorities blame terrorists and extremists for the bloodshed and say 500 soldiers and police have been killed.

Internet footage of today's protests suggested that although widespread they were smaller than at their peak in July, before Dr Assad sent tanks and troops into several cities.

Protesters from Syria's Sunni majority resent the power and wealth amassed by some Alawites, who adhere to an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and want Dr Assad to quit, the dismantling of the security apparatus and the introduction of sweeping reforms.

The violent repression prompted coordinated calls from the United States and European Union yesterday for Dr Assad to step down and Washington imposed sweeping new sanctions on Syria, which borders Israel, Lebanon and Iraq and is an ally of Iran.